TOKYO Support for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has fallen to its lowest level since he took office, dented by the suicide of a scandal-hit minister and government bungling of pension records, an opinion poll showed on Monday.
The survey comes less than two months before a crucial election for parliament's upper house, Abe's first ballot-box test since he became prime minister last September.
A weekend survey by the Asahi newspaper found approval for Abe's cabinet had slid to 30 percent, down from 36 percent a week earlier.
Nearly 70 percent of voters were unhappy with Abe's handling of the controversy over Agriculture Minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka, who killed himself last week just hours before he was to face questioning in parliament over links to several political funding scandals.
Sixty-one percent said their impression of the cabinet had worsened as a result.
"I am not doing politics just to boost support ratings. I want to secure public understanding by carrying out policies properly," Abe told reporters.
"We always take these (results) with humility," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki told a news conference. "The most important thing to do is to grapple with policies of great concern to the people, such as pensions, and get results."
Even before Matsuoka's suicide, Abe's ratings had taken a beating from voter anger at the failure of a government agency to keep track of millions of premium payments, meaning retirees could be short-changed.
In an attempt to resolve the problem, the ruling coalition pushed laws through the lower house of parliament last Friday in the face of fierce resistance from the opposition, which has pledged to make the issue a major point of the July upper house election.
Seventy percent of the respondents to the Asahi poll agreed with the opposition that the legislation had been pushed through without sufficient debate.
Support for Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has also suffered and lawmakers are getting worried.
"Unless we deal with these matters properly, we are in no condition to fight the election," upper house LDP member Yoichi Masuzoe told reporters after calling on Abe with a group of lawmakers to discuss the party's election platform.
The opposition went on the attack as debate began on pension-related laws in the upper house on Monday, calling for Abe to take responsibility in dealing with the mess.
"The trust of the people in the pension system has been shaken to the roots," Democratic lawmaker Ryuji Yamane said.
"The people are looking to you, the top authority in the nation, to take some responsibility."
A poll conducted by Fuji Television and published in the Sankei newspaper on Monday showed about 21 percent of voters intend to support the main opposition Democratic Party in the next lower house election, compared with some 17 percent who would vote for the LDP.
No lower house election is required until 2009.
Loss of a majority in the upper house would not automatically force Abe to resign, but it would be likely to spark calls within the ruling camp for him to do so.
(Additional reporting by Linda Sieg and Teruaki Ueno)